Mumbai Blasts and The Somnath Syndrome

Author : C.Uday Bhaskar

The tragic yet audacious multiple terrorist attacks that killed at least 18 people and injured over 100 on Wednesday in Mumbai is a stark and blood-splattered reminder that India remains vulnerable to such attacks -- and that this is a manifestation of the proxy war that has been waged against India since the early 1990s.

Mumbai has been targeted by terrorists with support from within the megalopolis and from an external power since 1993 and it peaked with the November 2008 attack. The July 13 attack follows this pattern and pending more detailed investigations and forensic examination, a few preliminary inferences can be arrived at.

First, it is evident that the manner in which the attacks were simultaneously triggered at Dadar, Zaveri market and Opera House indicate a degree of confidence and competence by the perpetrators. This in turn would narrow down the spectrum of likely perpetrators and while the finger of suspicion is pointing towards a few well-known groups (reference is being made to the Indian Mujahideen and the Lashkar-e-Taiba) it would be imprudent and undesirable to jump to hasty, emotive conclusions about the identity of the group or forces behind such attacks.

The more urgent question that most Indians are asking -- and angrily at that -- is how long will this pattern of terrorist attacks go on and is Mumbai in particular going to remain perennially vulnerable -- a modern Somnath (the medieval temple town in modern Gujarat that was ostensibly attacked 27 times by foreign invaders)?

As an analyst, one can only regretfully conclude that for India, based on the current domestic ambience and the regional turbulence -- the probability index of more such terrorist attacks will increase over the next decade. Thus, the abiding challenge for the national political and bureaucratic security apex is how to pre-empt the next terrorist attack and 'deter' the others that are in different stages of planning or conception.

What the July 13 attack demonstrated is that the existing security infrastructure and 'output' being generated by the local Mumbai police was not adequate or appropriate to prevent the IEDs (improvised explosive devices) from exploding in three different locations in south Mumbai. The fact that these IEDs were hidden and placed in pre-designated locations without being detected, is indicative of the existing gaps and huge challenges for the local police and the surveillance grid required in a megalopolis of 18 million citizens.

After the November 2008 attack, it was hoped that the national intelligence infrastructure would be re-structured and that there would be greater coordination between the state and central agencies. July 13 proved that this is not the case -- and that gaps still exist that are being exploited by the perpetrators of terror.

Can a democratic nation like India with the kind of diverse and socio-economically impoverished human security indicators assure its citizens that there will never be another terrorist attack in urban India? This is the same question that was asked of the U.S. president in September 2001 and of the Indian prime minister repeatedly since the parliament attack of December 2001.

While it is not possible for a politician who needs to be re-elected to answer this question objectively -- as an analyst, one can assert 'No'. Under the current domestic ambience and prevailing regional turbulence (Afghanistan and Pakistan), the probability that more terrorist attacks will occur in India remains high.

Thus, the July 13 tragedy should be seen as yet another alert to a national security system that has not been able to find the necessary institutional responses to sustained terror attacks -- that are appropriate, effective and affordable. Every recent terrorist incident has led to predictable and reactive responses from the government and an arid, zero-sum political squabble that is carried at a shrill pitch on the national audio-visual medium.

Mumbai in particular and India as a nation deserve better by way of ensuring the security of the citizen against random but pre-meditated terror attacks. A steady rise in GDP and nurturing pockets of affluence and 'gated' communities that are secure is not the kind of profile that behooves any democratic government. Such an arrangement is neither equitable nor sustainable.

The post 26/11 internal security revamp announced by Home Minister P. Chidambaram needs to be objectively reviewed and the newly formed Task Force on national security should prioritise this aspect of internal security -- the erasure of the Somnath syndrome. (This article first appeared in the Reuters on July 14, 2011)
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